Can tactics destroy teams?

Of late one has had the tactical examples of Chelsea and Liverpool both of which seem to have backfired quite badly. There is no point in being rigid in your approach. By Brian Glanville.

Once upon a time in English football a leading manager such as Matt Busby, progenitor of the so called ‘Busby Babes’, would simply tell his team, even at half-time in a Cup final at Wembley when a goal down, “Keep on playing football”. On one such occasion in 1948 they did and they won. Nowadays such an apparently casual approach would be unthinkable. Major clubs now back up their managers and coaches with an array of so called sports science, with highly detailed facts and graphs and figures whereby, with the occasional help of a so called sports psychologist, they can monitor the performance of their players and ideally improve it.

I’ve never really believed in football psychologists, though I know that now and then you find an exception to prove the rule. Way back in the latter 1950s, when one first heard about the breed, a rarity then, I remember inventing a fictitious one called upon to treat a forward who had suddenly stopped scoring goals. He discovered I wrote that the player was suffering from the classical Freudian Oedipus complex, meaning he was in love with his mother and wanted to kill his father. The psychologist therefore told him that every time he was kicking the ball he was really kicking his father, whereupon the player immediately started scoring goals again!

Pretty far fetched, I know, but just a few years ago, Arsenal’s own psychologist was comically exposed when his list of advice to the players was published. It was of such a banality, such a half baked series of commonplace advice, that it induced general hilarity and a scathing response from the then Arsenal and England outside right, Ray Parlour, who ridiculed it.

Of late one has had the tactical examples of Chelsea and Liverpool both of which seem to have backfired quite badly, Chelsea first. Last season, as we know, they were shipping water badly when taken over by the then coach who, at first, wasn’t even designated as manager — Roberto Di Matteo. Things in the European Cup were parlous; the team had just been beaten in a first leg match in Naples and looked to have little chance in the return game at Stamford Bridge. But Di Matteo quickly reorganised the team, placing special emphasis on the power upfront of Didier Drogba. Not only did Chelsea turn the tables on Napoli in the thrilling match, but they actually went on, against all odds, to knock out mighty Barcelona and to defeat Bayern Munich on their own ground in the final.

This they did with a highly pragmatic style of play, cutting their coat strictly in accordance with their limited cloth. A reinforced midfield and a dour defence with heavy reliance placed on the breakaway enabled them to win even at the Nou Camp against Barca, and even though the lynchpin of their defence, John Terry, was sent off for a stupid foul.

It subsequently became clear, though, that their billionaire owner, the Russian so called oligarch, Roman Abramovich, however pleased he was with the remarkable success wanted a far more adventurous open attacking style of play. Just as he had done when under “The Special One”, the self nicknamed Jose Mourinho, the team has relied on the counterattack; though far less dourly than under Di Matteo. Soon after a defeat at Aston Villa, which Abramovich watched but flounced out of the directors’ box before the end, Mourinho was dismissed.

Di Matteo hasn’t been dismissed, he has even been made, belatedly, full manager, though it was strongly rumoured that Abramovich wanted to appoint the former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola in his place. Meanwhile, however, with Chelsea spending immense sums of transfer money this summer on the talented likes of Eden Hazard of Belgium and Oscar of Brazil, it grew clear that there would be a major tactical change. Drogba had gone to Shanghai, where he would earn colossal wages. Fernando Torres, the once so effective Spanish centre forward who had, alas achieved so little since his GBP50 million move from Liverpool, would be confirmed as a very different, less physical, centre forward. And what has happened?

In a most embarrassing meeting in Monaco between Chelsea, as European Cup holders and Atletico Madrid, the winners of the so called secondary Europe tournament, Chelsea were thrashed and humiliated. Their defence, admittedly without John Terry, obliged to watch, both injured and suspended, from the stand, was a colander, with precious little help from midfield. Atletico’s Colombian centre forward Falcao simply ran riot, poorly marked, feebly challenged, he scored a hat-trick which was at once spectacular and facile. Eden Hazard, a hugely effective and entertaining attacker at The Bridge against mere Premiership teams, got nowhere at all.

You have to wonder therefore how long Abramovich, who is probably responsible for Chelsea’s sudden demise, will put up with what is now happening, deciding he needs a new manager and showing Di Matteo, who presumably and probably has just been doing what Abramovich has mistakenly wanted him to, the door.

Meanwhile Liverpool, under the new aegis of Brendan Rodgers, so successful a young manager at Swansea City, have made a dreadful start to the season and at present seem a toothless team. Obliged to field their most expensive and celebrated player Luis Suarez, who admittedly had a pretty poor time of it with Uruguay in the recent Olympic tournament, as a spearhead; just the role he least appreciates, which may or may not be why he has been missing so many chances.

Discarding his GBP35 million striker, the tall and burly Andy Carroll, the very antithesis of the brisk close passing game which Swansea played for Rodgers so well, Carroll being the reverse of such a style, a big, old-fashioned centre-forward, powerful in the air, Rodgers has suddenly found himself without a striker to his name. This largely because he was hell bent on signing the prolific American, Clint Dempsey, from Fulham, only to find that the club’s American owners wouldn’t pay up for him. Since he had already lent Carroll to West Ham where one saw him make a splendid start, only to limp off injured and out for weeks, Rodgers simply didn’t have a striker. Liverpool, you might say, were a headless body. Moral: don’t be so doctrinaire in your approach.